The Verge has an interesting new Q&A with Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt that covers tons of ground, from Open Connect and ISP politics to studio politics and high frame rate video delivery, but the most interesting revelation comes in the form of a discussion about potential 4K Netflix streams, and how the shift to Ultra HD may well be the best thing to ever happen to the service:
You don’t think this push for the 4K format and ultra high-definition by the film studios and TV manufacturers is an attempt to wall out streaming services like Netflix? That’s a lot of info to stream.
On the contrary. Streaming will be the best way to get the 4K picture into people’s homes. That’s because of the challenges involved in upgrading broadcast technologies and the fact that it isn’t anticipated within the Blu-ray disc standard. Clearly we have much work to do with the compression and decode capability, but we expect to be delivering 4K within a year or two with at least some movies and then over time become an important source of 4K. 4K will likely be streamed first before it goes anywhere else. To that point, our own original House of Cards was shot in 4K. It’s being mastered in full HD, but the raw footage, or a good chunk of it, was shot in 4K, and we hope to have some House of Cards 4K encodes later this year.
The key observation hidden in that prediction is the recognition that compression and decoding will be the key to 4K streaming — not merely more bandwidth. Netflix Super HD recently became available in my area, and I’m seriously blown away by the quality — seriously, at its best Super HD is on par with Blu-ray in terms of video, even if the audio isn’t quite up to snuff — but I had to upgrade my internet service from 15 Mbps to 30 Mbps just to avoid a constant yo-yo of video quality. Before the advent of Super HD, I could expect a pretty consistent stream of DVD-quality video. Post-Super HD, with my 15 Mbps service (which would often dip down to as low as 5Mpbs at peak hours), it was like flipping back and forth between Blu-ray and YouTube every minute or so.
Of course, it’s probably going to be a while before I (or most of you, for that matter) even start thinking about upgrading to a 4K display, but given that the company’s output accounts for nearly a third of all internet traffic, imagine what will happen to internet bandwidth as a whole if 4K Netflix streaming becomes the norm without a shift to something like HEVC.
Such a shift wouldn’t merely benefit those with Ultra HD displays. The more efficient video codec that will inevitably come with 4K Netflix streaming would mean better, more consistent HD video across the board, without everyone having to tack another ten bucks onto their ISP bills at the end of the month.